Last week, on Friday, 26 June 2015, sometime around noon, I wrote my millionth word of finished fiction.
I did not realize it immediately. But I keep a running word counter on my computer, and when I entered the 3500 words or so that I wrote that day, the magic number popped up in the ‘Total’ cell. And made itself quite conspicuous.
When I was twenty-two, just about to get on this whole writing bandwagon, two pieces of advice from two different writers spoke to me the loudest. I filed them away in a safe Word document, written out in bold, 24-point font. Even today I open the file every couple of days and read the words out, aloud.
The first is by Wodehouse. In his book, Author! Author!, he says:
They [meaning readers] start noticing you only after you’ve published six or seven books.
The second is by Raymond Chandler (attributed to different people):
Every author has a million words of crap in them that they must spit out before they write something good.
Though they put it differently, I realized back then that they both were saying the same thing: shut up and write.
Details of the million words
A couple of points on how I counted the million words.
- I did not count nonfiction. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction on this blog, and also a couple of books. They didn’t count.
- I only counted finished, ready-to-publish fiction. Notes, character sketches, plot outlines and all other nice stuff is out. Only finished, fully edited, polished, ready-to-hand-in fiction.
Here are the details. Fourteen finished works of fiction so far, out of which three are unpublished, five soon-to-be-published, and six published.
- Loyalty Net. A science fiction novel set in 21st century Mumbai. 60,000 words. Unpublished.
- Eternity’s Beginning. A dystopian novel set in India. 70,000 words. Unpublished.
- Puzzles of Temple Towers. A collection of short mysteries set in Bangalore. 65,000 words. Unpublished.
- Murder in Amaravati. A mystery novel. 63,000 words. Published March 2012.
- Banquet on the Dead. A mystery novel. 70,000 words. Published September 2012.
- The Winds of Hastinapur. A mytho-fantasy novel. 90,000 words. Published September 2013.
- The Puppeteers of Palem. A horror novel. 75,000 words. Published November 2014.
- Jump, Didi! A collection of short stories. 25,000 words. Published May 2015.
- Nari. A novel on rape and sexual abuse. 85,000 words. To be published, July 2015.
- The Narrow Road to Palem. A collection of horror short stories. 35,000 words. To be published, July 2015.
- The Rise of Hastinapur. Book 2 of the Hastinapur series. 120,000 words. To be published September 2015.
- The Crows of Agra. A historical murder mystery. 90,000 words. To be published November 2015.
- Donoor’s Curse. A thriller novel. 90,000 words. To be published August 2015.
- Within the Family. A mystery novel. 65,000 words. To be published March 2016.
If you add up those numbers, it should come to slightly over a million words. Give or take a few.
7 points to note about this list
1. I published my first novel, Murder in Amaravati, in 2012, by which point I’d written about 200,000 words of finished, polished fiction.
2. Therefore, publishing has nothing to do with how good you are. The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are extremely personal yardsticks, whereas publishing, sales and reader feedback are mere external validations which have nothing to do with how you feel about your fiction.
3. My definition of whether I’m writing ‘good stuff’ is this:
If one of the writers I admire were to read my story, would they like it? At the very least, would they not hate it?
So if I write a horror piece, I imagine someone like Stephen King or Dean Koontz reading it. If I write a mystery, I wonder if Agatha Christie would nod along with it. If I write a funny story, would it make Wodehouse chuckle? If I write science fiction or fantasy, would it make Asimov look up from his typewriter in the heavens? And so on.
4. This has been my parameter of quality ever since I began, and it will continue to be in the future. I want to write stuff that is worthy of the people I admire. Sales are important, but they’re not great quality indicators.
5. Right about now, I’m getting to a stage where I think they will not hate what I’ve written. So my fiction has reached a stage now, in my opinion, where my idols would read it and go, ‘Meh. What else you got?’
6. I became conscious of this feeling around the 950,000-word-mark. It crept upon me slowly over the years. It’s not like I woke up one morning and felt like a star.
7. It has taken me seven years to write a million words of finished fiction. For five of those years, I was writing part time. For the last year and a half, I’ve been going at it full time.
What my million words of crap taught me
In no particular order, this is what I’ve learnt about writing and life in the last seven years. The ‘you’ that appears in some of the points is really me, talking to myself. These are personal lessons that I have drawn from my last seven years. I don’t intend any of this to be advice, though you’re free to take it that way if you wish.
Much of what I say here, I say with fiction in mind. But it applies – at a lower level – to nonfiction as well.
1. Writing is fun. It is hard to begin a story, and sometimes frustrating to get through the difficult parts. But you always feel nice after you’ve finished one.
2. Writing is a core art, and its history is as long as human speech and language. The deeper you descend into this world, the more you realize you’re only swimming on the surface. After writing a million words, I can unabashedly admit that I feel like I’ve only just begun.
3. Writing is the most abstract of the arts. Consider that an average novel builds a whole world and populates it with people, and takes you there and gives you a whole experience for a good six or seven hours. And it does it with words on a page.
4. Writing is the most transparent of the arts. Because when you drill down to it, it’s just words on a page. This means that all the knowledge that you need as a writer is available, in black and white, in the works of the authors you admire.
5. You cannot learn just by studying. You learn by first studying, then implementing what you studied in your work. See how it turns out. The difference is significant, a bit like reading a book on how to build a house, and then going ahead and actually building it.
6. A writer is built on a piece of work. A writing career is built on a body of work. There are no shortcuts to building a body of work. You just sit down and write, book after book after book.
7. The world is full of distractions. The world is full of advice. The world is full of nonsense. How much you write and how well you write will depend almost exclusively on how well you train yourself to ignore the distractions and noise.
8. You will always be a learner. Deal with it.
Now that my first million finished words of fiction are behind me, bring on the second million. Since I’m doing this full-time now, and since I’m at a better position craft-wise than when I began, I expect this to take less than seven years. As a conservative estimate, perhaps three years is a good target to shoot for.
So I expect to write my ‘two million words’ post sometime in June, 2018. Let’s see how I get on.
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